Historic recount completes first day; Franken wins ballot case
Update 3:05 a.m.
ST. PAUL - Relatively few disputes were reported today as hundreds of Minnesotans pored over U.S. Senate ballots in a historic U.S. Senate election recount.
If the recount of 2.9 million ballots elevates Al Franken to be the winner, Democrats would have even stronger control of the Senate. Going into today, Franken trailed incumbent Republican by 215 votes.
Hours after the recount started, a judge ordered Ramsey County to turn over a list of voters whose absentee ballots were rejected. Franken's campaign asked for the order, and officials there expected other counties to comply.
The Franken suit was meant to give the campaign a chance to get more votes in the razor-close race.
No major problems were reported in the most massive Minnesota recount ever.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said delays were reported when dealing with overseas ballots, but few other issues were heard.
"This is Day 1, a sort of learn-how-to-do-it day," he said.
While things appeared to be running generally smoothly, Ritchie said, the nasty Senate campaign was carrying over to a certain extent.
"The mood is weird, but not too bad," said Ritchie, the top state elections official. "There is a lot of tension."
About half of the 107 recount sites began work today, with others starting the count as late as Dec. 3. No final winner is expected until the last half of December.
Hundreds of Franken and Coleman supporters, including paid and volunteer attorneys, watched the recount with an eye of picking up any questionable votes.
Besides simply recounting the ballots, campaign observers were looking for ballots that may have been counted wrong by machines or that machines rejected all together. State law requires a ballot to be counted if the voter's intent can be determined.
Both campaigns were challenging some local election workers' decisions on that front, sending the ballots to the state Canvassing Board, which will decide those issues starting Dec. 16. Those decisions could well determine the race's winner.
Every one of the 2.9 million ballots cast on Nov. 4, and earlier as absentee votes, will be examined individually at 107 sites across the state. About half of those sites were active today.
It is the closest election in state history, following the most expensive Minnesota campaign ever.
Ritchie said there will be "a relatively small number of challenges," but out of 2.9 million votes, even a small number can sway the election.
Few changes in vote totals were reported from the unofficial returns earlier reported by the secretary of state's office. And reporters watching recounts in counties across the state saw campaign observers challenge few ballots.
The mood in many locations was reported light before recounting began, but turned somber once the work started. And in many cases, few citizens other than reporters were watching, although officials made sure to hold recounts in locations with plenty of seating in case large crowds turned out.
One of the first counties done recounting, Norman, reported no challenged ballots and the same vote as before the new count began.
"It went better than I could ever have imagined," said Auditor Rick Munter, whose team finished at 12:45 p.m. "I didn't expect to be out of here without any challenged ballots."
While the 2,910 who voted in Norman make it one of the smallest counties, eight recount stations were set up in the Dakota County Judicial Center in Hastings, where 225,000 ballots would be counted.
In Bemidji, more than 40 people filed into the Beltrami County Administration Building to begin a recount of 24,000 ballots.
When approached by a reporter, a Franken supporter showed slip of paper indicating a gag order by the campaign, referring all questions to Franken headquarters in St. Paul.
"We've got six here now and about 30 volunteers," said former Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, who with Washington, D.C., attorney Andrew Miller, were serving as leads for the Coleman campaign.
In Kandiyohi County, Colman picked up two votes in the first two hours and there were no challenged ballots in Kandiyohi County precincts outside of Willmar.
In Willmar, a voter on the one ballot challenged in the first hour marked a big "X" next between the ballot ovals for candidates Dean Barkley and Coleman. The city recount judges ruled that there was not clear voter intent. City Clerk Kevin Halliday said that the voting machine had counted the challenged ballot as a vote for Coleman.
The recount had barely started in Otter Tail County when the process came to a halt. The issue: observers from both campaigns wanted to see the back of the ballots being counted to determine if there were any identifying marks. Rules say any marks that would identify a voter renders an entire ballot invalid.
Otter Tail County Auditor Wayne Stein checked with the secretary of state's office and was told to allow observers to see both sides of ballots.
By late morning, Chippewa County observers disputed just one ballot. It had been marked for two candidates in the Senate race, and a Franken observer requested it be forwarded to the state Canvassing Board.
So many Franken observers showed up at the Clay County Courthouse in Moorhead that they discussed sending some to nearby Fergus Falls. No fewer than 12 election observers were there for Franken, with at least four for Coleman.
In St. Louis County, with 187 precincts, it is expected to take at least five days for county auditor's office employees to count each ballot. By noon, with 27 of the 184 St. Louis precinct recounted, totals changed by four or five votes on a side, with a dozen ballots being challenged.
Bill Cortes of Duluth, an observer for the Franken campaign, said votes were being challenged because some voters mistakenly voted for multiple candidates in the same race. While those spoiled votes likely would have been noticed by electronic scanners, they may have been missed in polling places where ballots are counted by hand.
Dozens of Coleman and Franken supporters crammed into the St. Louis County board chambers this morning, with officials from each camp watching county staff count the ballots, including out-of-town attorneys on both sides. Some campaign observers claimed the county employees were counting too fast, others that too many people were in the way.
About 20 partisan and non-partisan observers sat inside the Washington County Government Center's conference room in Stillwater as election officials started the recount of about 140,000 ballots.
Molly O'Rourke, a department administrator for Washington County, said the county is scheduled to finish the recount on Saturday, but hopes to complete the counting by Friday.
The morning Polk County recount produced no challenges and no change form earlier vote totals.
In Hubbard County, campaign observers were easy to identify.
Franken's team was mostly young men in jeans and plaid shirts. The Coleman campaign was mostly well-dressed senior citizens. No one would speak to the media, saying they had been instructed not to.
Some early squabbling broke out at the Hubbard County recount when a challenged ballot was placed into the Coleman pile by the sorter. Campaign volunteers quibbled whether by placing it in a pile, the ballot had been officially accepted. The initial issue was whether the voting tabulation machine had actually counted a ballot marked in red ink.
In today's legal action, Ramsey Country District Judge Dale Lindman told the county to give the Franken campaign the rejected absentee voter list it sought.
"Data already compiled in written form or routinely compiled by election officials, regarding the number of absentee votes, absentee voters, etc." are among items Lindman ordered turned over.
Franken's campaign must get the information today, the judge said.
Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said his campaign will not use the information.
Franken officials refused to say how they would use the list, but they already have contacted absentee voters on lists they have obtained from other counties. They looked for what they considered wrongly rejected ballots and apparently plan to ask the state Canvassing Board or the courts to allow some of them to be counted.
Marc Elias, Franken's Washington, D.C.-based recount attorney, would not speculate about how many absentee ballots his campaign may try to get counted.
The ballots were rejected for a variety of reasons, such as when elections officials did not think a voter was properly registered.
Recounts today started at about half of the 107 sites, but other cities and counties begin their recounts at various times through Dec. 3.
Each night throughout the process, state officials will release unofficial recount returns, which the Colman campaign today warned would vary.
"It's important to remember that the vote count reflected today will swing wildly from day to day - and most likely - throughout the recount process," campaign officials wrote. "This is a natural process of the recount, and one which is expected and normal. When all is said and done, the key point is the final tally once the recount is completed. We believe it will remain a result that has Norm Coleman re-elected to the United States Senate."
Ritchie hopes to have the recount finished by Dec. 5. He plans to bring the Canvassing Board back into session on Dec. 16 to begin examining every ballot either campaign challenged. With the closeness of the vote, that is expected to determine who wins the election.
All of this carries national importance because by the time the recount is done, the U.S. Senate could have 59 Democrats - depending on a pending new Georgia vote in early December. If Democrats have 60 votes, they can stop Republican filibusters and more easily pass bills on their agenda.
That possibility attracted reporters from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, Fox News and other national news outlets to Minnesota. Cable news channels delivered frequent updates on the recount today.
State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente and reporters from The Bemidji Pioneer, West Central Tribune, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Duluth News Tribune, Stillwater Courier, Park Rapids Enterprise Bulletin, Hastings Star-Gazette and Grand Forks Herald contributed to this story.